Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2018

A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the piano in Australia, by Michael Atherton #BookReview

This is my piano, manufactured by Wilcox & White in about 1920 in Meridien Connecticut.  It was one of three in my parents’ house and we called it Miss McIndoe’s piano to distinguish it from the baby grand that only my mother played because of its exasperating sticky action, and the pretty white one that my father painstakingly restored without ever being able to fix its wonky middle C.  The Misses McIndoe’s departure from two doors up back to Scotland coincided with my becoming seriously interested in the piano, and so my parents bought their piano for me.  It’s actually a pianola, though the mechanism has never worked while in our possession.  It has a beautiful tone, and in concert (ha!) with my music teacher Valda Johnstone, it coaxed me through HSC piano despite my prodigious lack of talent.

Thanks to A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the piano in Australia, I now realise that my piano was one of many thousands imported to Australia, and that its likely fate after my demise will be the tip.  People just don’t want them any more, but in their heyday pianos were, as the book blurb says, central to family and community life: 

With its iron frame, polished surfaces and ivory keys, an upright piano in the home was a modern industrial machine, a musical instrument and a treasured member of the household, conveying powerful messages about class, education, leisure, national identity and intergenerational history.

(Oh.  I had never thought about my keys being made of ivory.  I thought they were Bakelite.  But this site sent me to inspect the keys with a torch, and yes, they have the tell-tale seam so they are ivory.  I wish I didn’t know this).

I thought immediately of Michelle Scott Tucker and her bio of Elizabeth Macarthur when I read in the chapter called ‘Flooding the Colonies’ that Australia’s very first piano was given to Elizabeth in 1791.  It came with the First Fleet on the Sirius, and was owned by the navy surgeon George Bouchier Worgan.  Elizabeth describes it like this:

Our new house is ornamented with a pianoforte of Mr. Worgan’s; he kindly means to leave it with me, and now, under his direction I have begun a new study, but I fear without my master I shall not make any great proficiency. (p.15)

We have become so used to having ready access to whatever music we like, we forget how in other times, people must have ached with longing to hear the music they loved.  You can just imagine how having a piano meant that these early settlers were able to play and to hear the works of the great composers.   And as the settlements grew, social mobility meant that having a piano as the centrepiece of the house became tied to social status.  No wonder they imported them in their thousands…

No wonder Australian POWs risked so much to have one when they were locked up in Changi.  (See my Sensational Snippet for more about this).

In the 19th century, pianos were associated with middle-class respectability.  Indeed, Atherton quotes a droll letter to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from 1843:

GENTLEMEN, On my way to church last evening, I was much surprised to hear, through the open window of a house not far from the Bank of Australasia, (but on the opposite side of the road) the notes of a piano, on which some person was playing a common jig tune.  I trust a little reflection will convince the person in question of the impropriety of such conduct from the tendency it has to set a bad example to the many idlers found in that part of the city and also to distract the attention of those who are going to church from the serious thoughts which should occupy their minds.  I am, Gentlemen, Your obedient servant, MENTOR.  (p.41)

Alas for Mentor, the piano was not only played in bush bands and bush orchestras at #ShockHorror! dances, but also in goldfields singing tents, pubs and brothels.  And in the 20th century Jelly Roll Morton played jazz on a piano!

Before long, enterprising local craftsmen began making Australian pianos, and the photos that accompany this book show how gorgeous some of them were.  (See this Wertheim made of silky oak at the MAAS Museum in Sydney).  Alas, the Depression closed down many factories, (including Wilcox & White’s factory in America), and the arrival of radio and then TV along with Australia’s chronic lack of support for its manufacturing industries took care of the rest of them.  But there are still bespoke piano makers and restorers doing beautiful work with pianos, notably Wayne Stuart & Sons with their innovative 4-pedal, 108 key piano that ranges from an octave below the lowest C of a standard 88-digit keyboard, to F above the top C of a standard keyboard.  I am lucky to own the ABC Complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven played by Gerard Willems on Stuart’s 100 and 103 concert pianos, and you can see the beauty of the Huon Pine piano lid on the CD cover.

Despite my nostalgic affection for Miss McIndoe’s piano, the question of replacing it arises chez moi from time to time.  Atherton’s book gives comfort to both our opposing points-of-view i.e. keep v replace; real piano v space-saving electric.  He says, and I know it’s true, that pianos (like any analogue mechanical instrument), do wear out and need either major restoration or replacement.  For valuable grand pianos, the economics of restoration by a master craftsman like Ron Overs from NSW makes sense.  It’s cheaper to pay $60,000 for what becomes a unique piano than to replace a top calibre grand at a cost of $250,000 and that is what the National Gallery of Victoria did, paying for their 1985 Yahama CF111 grand piano to be remanufactured.  But it’s not really an option for my dear old instrument.

However, I was heartened by what Atherton has to say about electronic pianos, and could not resist triumphantly reading it out to The Spouse:

The acoustic piano is still favoured by teachers.  An electric instrument might be less costly to own and maintain, but an acoustic piano under the fingers, its sound vibrating in and around the case, immersing the player and listener in rich harmonic resonances, remains unsurpassed. The sound of tuned strings amplified by seasoned spruce moving air that inhabits an acoustic space might theoretically be matched by high quality sampling of acoustic piano timbres coupled with a high fidelity speaker system. Parents often believe that an electric instrument would be a better instrument for their child to play.  But an electric piano is not a substitute for an acoustic piano, the latter being a combination of both a string and percussion instrument. In most cases, a good teacher will demand an acoustic instrument for the touch and timbral sensitivity.  The Australian Music Examninations Board will nto examine students on a touch sensitive electronic keyboard. (p.207)

And anyway, where would I put the family photos??

I have barely scratched the surface of this wonderful book, and I liked it so much that I contacted the organisers of the forthcoming 2018 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong in November to request that they include a session with Michael.  But (yay!) they were ahead of me and have already booked him.  (And I have already booked my bed for the weekend so that I don’t miss out.)

Highly recommended, whether you are a piano enthusiast or not.

Author: Michael Atherton
Title: A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the piano in Australia
Publisher: La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959919
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc. with special thanks to Anna Lensky from Pitch Projects

Available from Fishpond: A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia and all good bookshops everywhere.

 


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    I sometimes play this piano too.

  2. I had a few piano lessons in primary school, but they didn’t take. Later I bought a piano for my youngest daughter and she is still upset I gave it away when we moved to a smaller house. It’s not Bach but you might enjoy this Jerry Lee Lewis

    • Jazz/pop/rock & roll are all very hard on a piano – but in this book it also talks about some well-known classical pianists who thumped the daylights out of concert grands as well….

  3. I’m in awe of anyone who can play a piano, even if it is “chopsticks”. This sounds like a fascinating book… had never thought how people must have longed to hear music when today I’m forever trying to find ways to block it out 😜

    • Yes, it’s awful, isn’t it? Everyone thinks that *their* kind of music is so wonderful that everyone else has to listen to it. And that musak in shops, is loathsome.

  4. Funny reading this today. I made a decision last night to try to re-teach myself the piano. We bought my daughter one when she was young and she still.plays it at 18, even after finishing music for VCE. My motivation is to ward off dementia 😉 which my father has 😔

    • Ah, you have given your daughter a gift for life:)
      From what I understand of preventing dementia, anything that requires the brain to keep making new connections is helpful. Learning the piano is in the same class as learning a new language, so it’s a very beneficial activity, with the added bonus that it maintains strength and flexibility in the fingers. My music teacher never had arthritis in her hands…

      • My mother is also a piano player and she doesn’t have dementia but she does have arthritis in her fingers but not her hands 😉

        • So the benefits from that angle are mixed. Ah well, I’m still going to keep playing:)

          • Sounds like a plan 😊

  5. And I thought I was the only person to grow up in a house that at one stage had three pianos – my grandparents’ pianola, my mother’s upright and her new baby grand. She taught many students on her pride and joy. On her death giving that piano away was the best option. Wonder what will happen to mine when it passes to the next generation? No pianists there

    • Hello Janne, we have something in common! How nice:)
      it’s sad that the next generation seems not interested. According to the book, it’s the exact opposite in China, where (mirroring the Australian experience with an emerging middle class) it is very popular.

  6. At least Miss McIndoe knew that her piano had gone to a good home. Earlier this year the Green Shed acquired its first grand piano — an old Broadwood, no less. (The owner had moved into a nursing home. Such places always seem to have the crappiest of crappy pianos.) The bloke who runs the tip shop had never even seen a grand, but he suspected this piano was special — it has a lovely music stand — and decided to give it away to the person who got the most likes (erk) on Facebook for performing on it. I don’t know who acquired it in the end. One can only hope he or she can rustle up the considerable funds needed to restore it. Imagine a world in which some philanthropic music lover forked out to recondition good pianos and then donated them to nursing homes, so that people who can really play would come and entertain the inmates…

    As for my coveted piano, I was pipped at the post by an 89-year-old. Yes, 89. I don’t know why he left it so late to get himself such a good piano — perhaps he was too loyal to his old upright! — but I wish him joy in his last years.

    I look forward to your report about the session with Michael Atherton.

    • Following your comment stream has reminded me that the mother of a friend used to play the piano in the lounge on the Indian Pacific (ie. it was her job). She’s in her 90s now but I think that despite dementia she still plays sometimes in her nursing home.

      • Yes, I’ve heard that about people with dementia. When all else is gone, they retain memory for music. It’s very interesting…

    • Not just nursing homes. Schools need decent pianos too. …
      My dear old music teacher took it into her head to leave her concert Steinway (in excellent condition) to a nearby Posh Private School. As executor I was gnashing my teeth as I wrote to the school to tell them of their good fortune, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when I got a phone call to say they’d like to come and inspect it because people were ‘always’ leaving them grand pianos and they might not want it. When Madame Nose In The Air came to the house to check it out I was desperately hoping that it wouldn’t meet their standards and then I could give it to the local government high school, but no, alas, they deigned to take it off my hands (as if they were doing me a favour).
      It was a metaphor for what our society has become: the haves get more and more, and the have-nots just go without. I was livid.

      • Oh, how galling. Don’t get me started on the inequities in schools. But what a great idea for a book: so many stories, and so much social and cultural history, attached to this stalwart and much-loved instrument.

        • Yes, a novelist with a feeling for history *wink* could write a great story about a piano…


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